The Future of Health and Beyond

The Future of Health and Beyond: The Economist features Good Judgment’s Superforecasts

This summer, Good Judgment Inc collaborated with The Economist for the newspaper’s annual collection of speculative scenarios, “What If.” The theme this year was the future of health. In preparing the issue, The Economist asked the Superforecasters to work on several hypothetical scenarios—from America’s opioid crisis to the possibility of the Nobel prize for medicine being awarded to an AI. “Each of these stories is fiction,” the editors wrote in the 3 July edition, “but grounded in historical fact, current speculation, and real science.”

This was unlike most of the work that Good Judgment Inc does for clients. Our Superforecasters typically forecast concrete outcomes on a relatively short time horizon to inform decision- and policymakers about the key issues that matter to them today. The Economist’s “What If” project instead focused on a more speculative, distant future. To address the newspaper’s imaginative scenarios without sacrificing the rigor that Good Judgment’s Superforecasters and clients have become accustomed to, our question generation team crafted a set of relevant, forecastable questions to pair with each topic.

As a result, The Economist’s “What if America tackled its opioid crisis? An imagined scenario from 2025” was paired with our Superforecast: “How many opioid overdoses resulting in death will occur in the US in 2026?”

What if biohackers injected themselves with mRNA? An imagined scenario from 2029” was paired with: “How many RNA vaccines and therapeutics for humans will be FDA-approved as of 2031?”

And “What if marmosets lived on the Moon? An imagined scenario from 2055” was paired with: “When will the first human have lived for 180 days on or under the surface of the moon?”

Superforecaster, Social Scientist, and Archaeologist of Tempe, Arizona, Karen Hagar participated in forecasting these “far into the future” questions because, she says, she likes challenges.

“These questions were different than standard forecasting questions which typically resolve a year into the future,” she explains. “Both types of questions have inherent challenges. The questions with shorter resolution require extreme accuracy. One must research and mentally aggregate all incoming information. This includes any possible Black Swan events, current geopolitical and any social developments that may change within the short time frame. The dynamics of predicting outcomes of questions 10-20 years into the future required the same skill, but possibly even more research.”

The most exciting aspects of the “What If” project for Karen included learning the degree to which science has advanced. “For example, uncovering the scientific data regarding CRISP.R technology and its application to Alzheimer’s research was amazing,” she says.

In making her forecasts for The Economist, she studied the questions from all angles and played devil’s advocate to challenge her colleagues’ thinking. This technique of red-teaming is frequently used by professional Superforecasters to confront groupthink and elicit more accurate predictions.

“What If” is only one of Good Judgment’s several collaborative projects with The Economist. The newspaper’s “World in 2021,” recurring annually since the “World in 2017” and looking to forecast key metrics for the year ahead, consisted of questions that had shorter time horizons and were of immediate importance to decision-makers.

Superforecaster and Show Producer JuliAnn Blam says she is particularly interested in forecasting questions that focus on economic issues and the “World in 2021” project “didn’t disappoint.”

“The questions tended to be more pertinent to everyday life and issues that were of practical interest to me,” JuliAnn explains.

The “World in 2021” project included forecasting the world’s GDP growth, ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) investment, and work-from-home dynamics. But one of JuliAnn’s favorite questions was about racial diversity of board members in S&P 500 companies.

A screenshot of Good Judgment’s forecast monitor, FutureFirst, featuring the racial diversity forecast for The Economist’s “World in 2021” project.

“That one was hopeful, ‘woke’, and had me looking more closely at what a diversified board of directors can bring to a company’s outlook, marketing, product line, treatment of employees, etc.,” JuliAnn says. “It was a sort of stepping stone to looking into a lot more than just how many companies will appoint board members of color within the next year, and pushed the argument of why they should and what they would gain by doing so.”

Despite having a shorter time span than the “What If” forecasts, the “World in 2021” also required taking into account numerous factors, some of which weren’t even on the horizon when the questions were launched in October 2020. Take, for instance, the global GDP question.

“There are so many factors to consider, between Xi and Evergrande and the resultant fallout of the cascade from that default, to new COVID variants stopping workforces, anti-vax movements, the infrastructure bill and the green new deal, and then inflation,” JuliAnn says. “Tons to balance and think about!”

Whether it’s a forecast of global GDP next year or a possibility of using the Moon as a base for space exploration in the following decade, the Superforecasters always apply their rigorous process and tested skills to provide thoughtful numeric forecasts on questions that matter. As for their reward, Karen puts it best: “The enjoyment from forecasting is honing and improving forecasting skill, acquiring new information, and interacting with intellectuals of the same knowledge base.”

You can find Good Judgment’s Superforecasts on the “What If” questions in The Economist’s print edition from 3 July 2021 or on their website, or ask us about a subscription to FutureFirst, Good Judgment’s forecast monitor, to view all our current forecasts from our team of professional Superforecasters.

Handicapping the odds

Handicapping the odds: What gamblers can learn from Superforecasters

Successful gamblers, like good forecasters, need to be able to translate hunches into numeric probabilities. For most people, however, this skill is not innate. It requires cultivation and practice.

In Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, a best-selling book co-authored with Dan Gardner, Phil Tetlock writes: “Nuance matters. The more degrees of uncertainty you can distinguish, the better a forecaster you are likely to be. As in poker, you have an advantage if you are better than your competitors at separating 60/40 bets from 40/60—or 55/45 from 45/55.”

Good Judgment’s professional Superforecasters excel at this, but thinking in probabilities doesn’t come naturally to the majority of human beings. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who studied decision making under risk, found that most people tend to overweight low probabilities (e.g., the odds of winning a lottery) and underweight other outcomes that were probable but not certain. In other words, people on average evaluate probabilities incorrectly even when making critical decisions.

Superforecasting gambling poker
Base rate neglect often leads to poor decisions in forecasting, finance, or gambling.

If you’ve participated in any Good Judgment training, you’ll know that the first step in estimating correct probabilities is to identify the base rate—the underlying likelihood of an event. This is also the step that the majority of decision makers tend to ignore. Base rate neglect is one of the most common cognitive biases we see in training programs and workshops, and it generally leads to poor investing, betting, and forecasting outcomes.

For those new to the concept, consider this classic example: “Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful, but with little interest in people or the social world. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure and a passion for detail.”

Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer? A librarian or a salesman?

While the description, offered in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, may be that of a stereotypical librarian, Steve is in fact 20 times more likely to be a farmer—and 83 times more likely to be a salesman—than a librarian. There are simply a lot more farmers and sales persons in the United States than male librarians.

Base rate neglect is the mind’s irrational tendency to disregard the underlying odds. Failure to account for the base rate could lead, for example, to the belief that participating in commercial forms of gambling is a good way of making money. Likewise, failure to factor in the house edge could lead to poor betting decisions.

Fortunately, the mind’s tendency to overlook the base rate can be corrected with training and practice.

Recognition of bias and noise, and techniques to mitigate their detrimental effects, should be at the heart of any training on better decision making. In Good Judgment workshops, we have consistently observed tangible improvements in the quality of forecasting as a result of debiasing interventions.

The other essential component is practice. On Good Judgment Inc’s public platform, GJ Open, anyone can try their hand at forecasting—from predicting the next NBA winner to estimating the future price of a bitcoin. Unsurprisingly, those forecasters who use base rates and forecast on the platform regularly tend to have better results.

To stay on top, gamblers, like successful forecasters and professional Superforecasters, need to actively seek out the base rate and mitigate other cognitive biases that interfere with their judgment. While “Thinking in Bets,” as professional gambler Annie Duke puts it in her best-seller, does not come easy to most people, better decision making—in forecasting, investing, and gambling alike—is a skill that can be learned. With an awareness of cognitive biases, debiasing techniques, and regular practice, anyone can acquire the mental discipline to handicap the odds more effectively.

* This article originally appeared in Luckbox Magazine and is shared with their permission.

Forecasting the Tokyo Olympics

Forecasting the Tokyo Olympics

In late July 2020, a year ahead of the Tokyo Olympics (postponed in 2020 and scheduled to open 23 July 2021), we asked the Superforecasters whether the Games will begin as planned. By 7 September 2020, the Superforecasters had a clear answer. Back then, they gave the Games a 63% probability of proceeding and have hardly looked back.

The picture was by no means clear if you followed media reports around the Olympics throughout the past year. The IOC and the organizing committee were adamant that options such as a cancellation or delay were off the table. The Japanese public became increasingly opposed to the event. COVID-19 hit the country with a new wave. A range of dissonant headlines, speculations, public opinion polls, and even allegations that Japan had privately decided to cancel the Games (Times) all contributed to the noise surrounding the future of the event.

Good Judgment’s professional Superforecasters are skilled at separating the signal from the noise. They took into account such factors as the associated costs; the likelihood that a vaccine would be developed, tested, and become available by the time of the event (this was months before any COVID-19 vaccine was found to be effective—and safe—in a large clinical trial); and the increasing international experience with measures to contain risk. See how their forecast evolved over time against the backdrop of media reports throughout the year.

A list of media headlines and key events is provided at the bottom of this article, demonstrating both the signal and the noise surrounding the Tokyo Olympics.

Full access to the Superforecasts and commentary is available through subscription via our FutureFirst™ monitor.

Tokyo Olympics: A Sample of Media Headlines Since July 2020

21 July 2020: USA Today: “As COVID-19 pandemic rages on, experts say it’s unlikely Tokyo Olympics can be held next summer”

20 Aug 2020: Japan Times: “Majority of Japanese firms against holding Tokyo Olympics in 2021”

7 Sept 2020: BBC: “Games will go ahead ‘with or without Covid’, says IOC VP”

1 Oct 2020: The Diplomat: “The International Olympic Committee has ruled out postponing the Tokyo Games for a second time”

1 Dec 2020: “Report: Delay of 2020 Tokyo Olympics cost $3 billion”

15 Dec 2020: Japan Times: “Most in Japan oppose holding Olympics in 2021, polls show”

27 Dec 2020: Kyodo: “Pandemic causing uncertainty, unease for Tokyo Olympic ‘host towns’”

7 Jan 2021: BBC: “Tokyo 2020: No guarantee Olympics will go ahead, says IOC’s Pound”

10 Jan 2021: Kyodo: “About 80% favor canceling, postponing Tokyo Olympics in summer: poll”

11 Jan 2021: Japan declares a state of emergency

13 Jan 2021: Guardian: “Tokyo’s Covid outbreak adds to doubts over hosting Olympic Games”

15 Jan 2021: NYT: “Hopes for Tokyo’s Summer Olympics Darken”

CBS: “Tokyo Olympics 2021: Spike in COVID-19 cases has Japanese officials bracing for possible postponement”

19 Jan 2021: AP: “Tokyo Olympics Q&A: 6 months out and murmurs of cancellation”

BBC: “Tokyo Olympics ‘unlikely to go ahead in 2021’”

21 Jan 2021: Times: “The Japanese government has privately concluded that the Tokyo Olympics will have to be cancelled because of the coronavirus”

22 Jan 2021: Reuters: “Japan and IOC deny that Olympics will be cancelled”

11 Feb 2021: Guardian: “Tokyo 2020 Olympics president expected to resign over sexist comments”

15 Feb 2021: CNN: “An earthquake at the Olympic torch relay start point is just the beleaguered Tokyo 2020 Games’ latest crisis”

17 Feb 2021: Seiko Hashimoto becomes new president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee

9 March 2021: Kyodo: “Japan to stage Tokyo Olympics without overseas spectators”

25 March 2021: Tokyo Olympic torch relay begins

15 April 2021: Washington Post: “Olympics could be canceled because of virus, Japan ruling party figure admits”

1 May 2021: Washington Post: “Olympic officials are determined to have a Tokyo Games despite Japan’s growing doubts”

12 May 2021: BBC: “Tokyo 2020: United States track and field team cancels pre-Olympic training in Japan”

14 May 2021: NPR: “Opposition to Tokyo Games Grows Heated amid COVID Concerns”

Guardian: “Hospitals overwhelmed as Covid cases surge in Osaka”

18 May 2021: CNBC: “Tokyo medical association calls for cancellation of Tokyo Olympics due to spike in Covid cases”

19 May 2021: CNN: “Dozens of Japanese towns have canceled plans to host foreign athletes from around the world due to concern over Covid-19”

25 May 2021: CNN: “Canceling Tokyo Olympics is ‘essentially off the table,’ says IOC member Dick Pound”

2 June 2021: AP: “Yes. Tokyo Olympics are ‘a go’ despite opposition, pandemic”

13 June 2021: CBS: “Cancel the Tokyo Olympics? It’s unlikely. Here’s why”